Amid COVID-19 lockdowns and border closures, Top End tourism operators brace for more pain

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A week ago, Greig Taylor was preparing for a record-breaking season with his business — a four-wheel drive safari company that offers tours through Kakadu, the Kimberley and beyond.

“This time of year is the peak period — the school holiday period for all operators around Australia,” he said.

“Our bookings were double for this time of year than they have been in previous years.”

But since then, a hotel quarantine leak linked to a remote mine site has sent Darwin into lockdown while several leaders contend with their own outbreaks interstate.

Mr Taylor said he has lost $30,000 in bookings since Sunday alone. Now, he’s bracing for the possibility that the figure could multiply.

He and other industry members are calling for government support to help an industry already battered by 2020 survive another period of border closures.

“”If we get no support out of this, this year, to be honest, that will probably be the demise of our business,” Mr Taylor said.

“We’ll need to go looking for jobs.”

COVID-free bubble burst

Industry representatives are concerned that the Top End lockdown has struck at the height of the peak season, and been worsened by multiple border closures and the absence of JobKeeper wage support.

Tourism Top End said visitors brought in $7.6 million a day — or about $232 million across the month — to the Top end economy in July 2019.

But all states and territories currently have travel restrictions in place with part or all of the NT, which itself has declared coronavirus hotspots in three states.

Tourism Top End’s Glen Hingley said even if Darwin’s lockdown lifted as scheduled today, forward bookings from interstate visitors had already tumbled.

“All operators across the Top End have received an avalanche of cancellations for the next four to five weeks,” he said.

“We went from being in the place in Australia to visit to the place that was locked down.”

Alex Bruce from industry group Hospitality NT agreed that the Top End’s status as a COVID-free destination had been burst.

“Since last year, COVID lockdowns were in the rearview mirror for Territorians,” he said.

“A lot of domestic tourists were leaving areas that were dealing with on-and-off-again lockdowns, coming up here, enjoying our freedoms, enjoying our lifestyle.”

“We do think the gloss has gone off some of that, unfortunately.”

Outbreaks ‘should not have happened’

Tourism groups are now calling on territory and federal governments to consider additional assistance for the sector.

“Last year, we all had to buckle down with COVID. We all had to accept what was happening with the global pandemic,” Mr Taylor said.

“But what’s happening now is the result of failures — failures at a state level with quarantine, but also it goes back to the feds not managing [the pandemic] as they should.

“What’s really hard for the business community to swallow right now is these outbreaks that have occurred should not have happened.”

While state and territory governments are charged with the operation of their hotel quarantine programs, the federal government has drawn signficant recent criticism for the pace of its coronavirus vaccine roll-out.

In June, National Cabinet determined that state governments would be responsible for providing assistance to businesses impacted by lockdowns.

A spokesman for the federal Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, Dan Tehan, said the federal government was providing 800,00 half-price flights to tourism destinations including Darwin, as well as economic support in its most recent budget.

Northern Territory Tourism Minister Natasha Fyles said her government had been looking at ways to support the sector.

“The Territory Labor government recognises the significant and immediate impact this week has had on tourism and hospitality operators,” a spokeswoman said.

“To support local businesses, we are constantly talking to the sector and looking at ways we can support industry during these challenging times, which have long-term impacts as a result of cancellations and confidence in travel across borders.”

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By Jesse Thompson (Original ABC Article)